Teachers – the keepers of the keys?

I’m finding it really tricky to figure out how to even begin tonight’s blog. The best way to describe how I’m feeling right now is to compare my brain to a fruit juicing machine (stay with me here – this metaphor will go somewhere, promise). For this to work, I need you to imagine that all of the global experts on Suicide Prevention are different pieces of fruit in a bowl – make sure you envision the best fruit possible – we’re talking the world’s best scientists, teachers, statisticians, researchers, professors, medical practitioners and more (I haven’t come across any other teachers yet – I think I may be the only one here – a very rare piece of fruit indeed).


You know what comes next right? What I’m going to share with you tonight is the wholesome, sweet juice of wisdom that has been extracted from each piece of fruit after it was crushed, squished and pumped through my brain juicer. As with a real fruit juicer, there are always those chewy, pulpy, fibrous bits that get cast aside in the juicing process – and that’s okay – you can’t put the whole fruit in the juice – it would never taste as good. Hopefully what I’ll document here is the best quality non-alcoholic fruit juice cocktail I’ve managed to create from all the exquisite quality fruit on offer.

Plenary Session on Neuroimaging and how it can inform treatment and prevention of suicidal behaviours
Plenary Session on Neuroimaging and how it can inform treatment and prevention of suicidal behaviours

The Myth-tini – needs to be shaken AND stirred

– There are still many myths and taboos associated with suicide that still pervade common perceptions – one such example is that people who attempt suicide are only attention seeking. Another worrying example, particularly when it comes to teachers and education is that only a trained professional can help someone who is experiencing suicidal ideation.

It is through a process of education that stigma and ignorance about this significant social problem can be broken down. It called me to reflect on whether we are doing enough in schools to ensure that teachers are confident in knowing how to handle a student who may disclose information of this nature. There are some interesting reflections about this here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/promoting-hope-preventing-suicide/200909/gatekeeper-training-prevent-youth-suicide-does-it-work

The Mar-Gatekeeper (still a little sour still for some?)

As per the reflections in the above link, there has been a recent trend towards providing suicide prevention/intervention training for those people who work with young people on a day by day basis, teachers being your perfect example. The term coined for this kind of training is ‘Gatekeeper Training’ – those who open the gates and connect people to mental health professionals and services that will give them the help they need.

To the best of my knowledge there is quite a bit of inconsistency in the way that this is being managed across the Department of Education System, the Private Sector and the Catholic Systemic Sector of education in NSW. It seems that different schools are trying different strategies according to their specific needs – and perhaps this is a good thing, as suicide prevention can never be a ‘one size fits all’ approach because there are so many determining factors in each circumstance.

However, I do feel that there is a lot of potential to better equip teachers with a common skill set to lift their level of confidence in how to respond to students and also how to promote the ideas of wellness and wellbeing in their everyday practice and language with their students.

A Norwegian presenter delivered some information today on a program that they run with schools in conjunction with the ASIST program. Unfortunately he reported that most schools ask them to come in to deliver the program after they have lost a student to suicide. He expressed how important he felt it was that the training was done proactively – I tend to agree with him here, although I realise the comments made in through the link above are also valid – you can never guarantee that a young person will ever speak to anyone about their suicidal ideation – but I can’t help but think that it’s best that teachers have the training in the event that a young person does open up.

The question that needs to be asked, however, is if teachers would be happy to be involved in training such as this? How would it be funded? Who would be best to facilitate this in schools? There are many questions that need to be answered. Another example of a training package for teachers is the ‘STORM’ training (Skills based Training on Risk Management). A joint pilot study is being conducted through the University of Melbourne to assess the success of this program. This is something to watch with keen enthusiasm.

National Action Iced Tea

I attended a great session this morning on National Action Strategies for the prevention of suicide that have been implemented in the US, Norway, Denmark and New Zealand. I’ve included some key documents on the resources page (click here) for those interested in a information with a little more depth – I’ve also included the Australian National Action Plan. It was certainly interesting to hear how the various countries have gone about tackling this problem. One thing that is clear is that it must begin with a mindset – that suicide is a preventable phenomenon. It is also interesting to note that in many studies, it can be seen that it is a phenomenon created as a bi-product of our society. Each of the strategies emphasise a mult-modal and multi-system approach where by organisations work in collaboration for the prevention of suicide.

Dr R McKeon presenting the US National Strategy for Suicide Prevention
Dr R McKeon presenting the US National Strategy for Suicide Prevention

Lars Mehlum, President of the International Association for Suicide Prevention, presented the National Action Plan from Norway – he made a very interesting comment that resonated strongly with all present: “we need to pay attention to the needs of our current society”. He was emphasising that our society is dynamic and ever-changing. It means that we also need to constantly re-evaluate and update the ways we address this concern in our unique contexts. The following four questions instantly sprung to mind for me and I wrote them down:

– Do we need an ‘action plan’ for suicide awareness and prevention in Australian schools?

– What are the things we are doing now in Australia that are working effectively? (and how do we know they are working?)

– What would be the best form of training we could provide our teachers to best manage suicide prevention, intervention and postvention in the school context?

Perhaps you might have some ideas in response to these questions?

Statistics Sunrise

So where are things at locally and globally? Disclaimer – this is general information – If you want the hard stats, I’ll try and include these on the resource pages as they’re made available to the delegates:

In general within Australia:

– Youth Suicide in males has been decreasing since it peaked dramatically in the mid 1980’s and then again in 1997.

– interestingly, in 2012, youth suicide among females in this same age group showed a slight increase – however, there is still a much higher rate of suicide in the male population over (this trend was mirrored globally, with gender being seen as a ‘risk factor’)

– Suicide in Australia is seen as a ‘prominent health concern’

– The highest rate of suicide in Australia is actually in the 85+ age bracket. This is concern for older members of the population is also mirrored globally with suicide of the elderly a particular concern.


The means by which young people choose to take their lives varies considerably. One major factor depends on access to means. Countries like the US and Switzerland, where gun control is of greater concern record much higher rates of firearm related death. A lot of work is being done on how to manage this concern in these countries. When dealing with adolescents, one key finding to come out of research is connected to impulsivity – due to their stage of cognitive development, adolescents are much more likely to act out of impulse, rather than logical detailed thought processes – therefore it is essential that restricted access to means is of great consideration. Rates of suicide were reported as being much lower in circumstances where access to means has become more difficult.

The question of Why?

An ocean of research has been conducted globally on the causal factors of why people choose to end their life. In many cases, a mental health disorder was present, but there has been a definite emphasis through the conference that mental illness is not a precursor to suicide – not all people with a mental illness are suicidal and not all people who choose suicide have a mental illness. There is still a lot of de-stigmatising that needs to be done here

There are a range of other contributing factors that have been shown to have an affect – these range from economic concerns, interpersonal connections (relationship breakdown), alcohol and substance abuse, lack of a supportive environment. There is really no one ‘cause’ of suicide.

A note on prevention – more to come tomorrow

Professor Annette Beautrais from a University in New Zealand made a very profound comment this morning regarding clinicians dealing with people presenting with suicidal ideation. She said that what they can’t prescribe for them are the things that they need that can make a real positive difference in their lives – things like maturity, a spirituality, good relationships, religion, an positive outlook. Well clinicians may not be able to prescribe these things – but I reckon that we as teachers give this a pretty good go! What huge potential for us to make a world of difference by modeling a ‘way of being’ – not through any program or intervention strategy – just simply by focusing on developing the whole person. Isn’t that what we do every day in our schools? Why aren’t there more teachers here at this suicide prevention conference? What more can organisations do to reach out to teachers?

Dr Annette Beautrais and Dr Lars Mehlum during presentations on national strategies
Dr Annette Beautrais and Dr Lars Mehlum during presentations on national strategies

I hope you enjoyed your juicy sweet fruit cocktail!

That’s all for tonight.. more to come tomorrow

Goodnight all 🙂

Donna waving

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